The growing rift between Sisi's parliament and al-Azhar

The growing rift between Sisi's parliament and al-Azhar
In the latest of regime attacks on al-Azhar, MP Mohamed Abu Hamed proposes a law to limit the powers of the Grand Imam by delegating essential roles to the president.
3 min read
28 April, 2017
Egyptian President Sisi (R) and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb [Getty]
Two hundred members of the Egyptian parliament voted in favour of opening the floor to discussion for a bill named “Azhar Law” earlier this week. 

The bill, written and proposed by Mohamed Abu Hamed MP from the Free Egyptians Party, proposes many limits and an overhaul of powers given to al-Azhar, Egypt's top Islamic authority.

The hallmark of the bill seeks to limit the tenure of al-Azhar’s Grand Imam to a maximum of eight years – a preposition that was met with great backlash from pro and anti-regime media.

Abu Hamed defended his bill, claiming that it does not target al-Azhar as a religious institution and pointed out that it also recommends dissolving al-Azhar University’s science and humanities schools or transferring their administration to the Ministry of Higher Education.

The most controversial portion of the law is transferring the power of appointment of al-Azhar’s committee of top scholars from the Grand Imam to the president.

This violates the seventh amendment of the 2014 Egyptian constitution whereby al-Azhar is given independence from any governmental interference. According to the amendment, no governmental entity has any power of appointment or dismissal over al-Azhar.  

Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, has refused to recognise this bill.

Speculations about a growing rift between Sisi and Tayeb surfaced after the latter refused to recognise the president’s assertion that a verbal declaration of divorce is not valid without government documentation.

This was not the first time the Grand Imam clashed with Sisi. When the army clashed with anti-coup protesters at National Guard on July 8, 2013, Tayeb called for a full independent investigation into the killings. 

He also called for the immediate release of political prisoners and refused to leave his home in protest.  

A month later, Tayeb briefly exited his self imposed sanctorum to react to the massacres at Rabaa and Nahda Squares with the assertion that al-Azhar was in no way involved in the events and that they had only found out about the news on television that morning like the rest of the population.

After this exit, Tayeb left Cairo and retired to his family home in Luxor for months.

In December 2014, Tayeb refused pressures from the Egyptian regime to release a fatwa declaring members of the so-called Islamic State group as non-Muslim.

Reasons for his refusal included an explanation of different rulings on the issue of takfir highlighting that the only way a person could be declared a 'non-Muslim' centred around their denunciation of Allah, Prophet Muhammed and the angels – which was not the case with these terrorists.

A most recent criticism of Sisi’s choices was attached to the economic strains put on the Egyptian people by the conditions of the IMF loan. The attack came wrapped in a thinly veiled generalised rhetoric about the monetary suffering of Muslims across the globe as a result of IMF policies.

The regime struck back in many ways prior to the proposed Azhar Law. After the attacks on Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria on Palm Sunday, Sisi declared a high committee to combat terrorism and extremism. But this committee did not include al-Azhar in any way. This signalled the magnitude of the growing rift between the regime and Sunni Islam’s largest and oldest religious institution.

Abu Hamed doubled down in his bill proposal, citing the importance of decentralising religious authority by claiming that other Islamic and even secular sects must have equal access to the pulpit, and adding that the government is the best player to enact checks and a balance system on religious institutions.